Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William R. D. King (1853)

William Rufus Devane King was born in Sampson County, North Carolina, on April 7, 1786. His parents were wealthy and owned a substantial number of slaves and a large amount of land. King was educated at the University of North Carolina but left before he graduated. He then studied law and was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1805. He was elected to his first political office in 1808 when he won a seat in the North Carolina House of Commons.

In 1810, King was elected to the United States House of Representatives. Once in Washington, D.C., he became a supporter of President James Madison and the War of 1812. He joined a group of politicians known as the War Hawks who saw the War of 1812 as the second war of independence for the United States. He resigned from the House in 1816 in order to travel with the U.S. minister to the Italian states and Russia, returning in 1818. While abroad, King learned important diplomatic skills which helped him navigate the political environment when he returned to Washington, D.C.

After returning to the United States, King moved from North Carolina to the newly established Alabama territory and established a plantation along the Alabama River. He served as a delegate to Alabama’s state convention and was chosen as one of the state’s first U.S. senators in 1819. In the Senate, King was a member of the Democratic Party and generally a supporter of President Andrew Jackson. He was considered a moderate Southerner, who was a natural mediator and had an in-depth understanding of the rules and proceedings of the Senate. He was also a close friend and political ally of James Buchanan from Pennsylvania, and they supported each other’s political ambitions.

King resigned his Senate seat in 1844 when President John Tyler appointed him U.S. minister to France. As minister, he worked to convince France not to oppose or interfere the U.S. annexation of Texas. He was successful in his mission and returned to the United States in 1846. That same year, he tried to reclaim his Senate seat but was defeated. He regained a Senate seat in 1848 when the sitting senator resigned. When Vice President Millard Fillmore became President after Zachary Taylor’s death in 1850, the Senate elected King as president pro tempore, in effect making him the acting vice president. During this contentious time in American history, King tried to keep debate in the Senate civil and calm but he had a difficult task as the Senate was negotiating the Compromise of 1850 to decide whether slavery could spread into the territories.

In the election of 1852, the Democratic Party nominated King as its vice presidential candidate to balance the ticket with presidential nominee, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. The Pierce-King ticket won the election. However, King played little part in the campaign because he was ill with tuberculosis. He resigned his Senate seat after the election and traveled to Cuba to try to recover. His health did not improve, and he realized he would not make it back to Washington for the inauguration. Congress passed special legislation to allow King to be sworn in as vice president outside the country. In March 1853, King became the first and only vice president to be sworn in in a foreign country.

Realizing that he was dying, King decided to return to the United States. He died on April 18, 1853, just one day after reaching his home in Alabama.